Smilde and May’s report on American sociology’s changing approach to religion is a marvelous starting point for any discussion about where religion research should go next. Carefully sifting through thirty years of articles in three prominent journals, the report will confirm some readers’ suspicions that American sociology has taken rather Christo-centric and Ameri-centric approaches to the subject, less often venturing to investigate non-Christian religion in the U.S. and across the globe. But how many may be surprised, relieved, or intrigued to learn that religion research sponsored by religious funders is actually less likely than federally funded research to report on religion’s pro-social consequences? And then there is the biggest single news item in this report, especially for non-specialists: sociological research on religion is not declining in the U.S., and may even be growing modestly. It’s encouraging news for anyone who has wondered whether or not graduate students should be steered away from what often has been perceived (unfairly) as a dangerous backwater from which one rarely returns employed or published. Appearing at the same time as a manifesto for expanding American sociologists’ approaches to religion, Smilde and May’s report is a call for a big conversation. How shall we speak, and with what conceptual tools shall we think, about religion at present and in the future?

The report assesses religion research with models of disciplinary growth. It implies that one sign of vitality in the field of sociological research on religion is the increasing proportion of studies that take religion as an independent variable. Borrowing language from the sociology of science, the report finds that religion research is developing a “strong program,” according to which religion is figured as the causal mover in a variety of social processes, rather than the effect of some other, more important factor(s). This too is good news for readers who have invested intellectual energies in the field, as it is likely to invite more sociological respect for religion as a research topic.

But how happy should we be? The terms of discussion give me some pause. They re-circulate social science’s widely shared conventional wisdom that causal strength is what makes a topic important, fundable, and assignable in classes not already dedicated to that topic. The discipline already hosts widespread agreement that it is good to entertain causal questions and to seek their answers most of the time, and the report seems to confirm that the religion sub-discipline is no different from others in that regard: an interesting footnote informs us that only 10% of the articles in the report’s large sample did not use causal analysis. But is independent variation the only, or necessary, mark of those topics most worth our attention? The report does not necessarily endorse that view. The term strong program describes one kind of research design; it need not imply an evaluation of the subject of study. The trouble is that the language of “strength” is hard to hear without evaluative connotations, and when attached to the language of causal variables, it will be easy enough for social scientists to suppose that a “strong” program, which specifically seeks out religion’s independent effects, produces the best contributions to knowledge of religion and the biggest warrant for reading that research. And what’s wrong with that? Everyone likes a hero; no one really aspires to play but a bit part in social life.

To carry the theatrical metaphor further, I suggest that we be wary of becoming infatuated with a character who turns out to be the strong, silent type. What about religion makes it a causal first-mover? How does it move? What makes it strong? I don’t claim to have read nearly all the studies that have invoked religion as an important causal factor. But social researchers have observed that we still don’t know so much about exactly how religion causes outcomes of interest. To take just one example, the world of political and civic activity: we still have a lot more to learn about the different ways religion may influence voting, volunteering, protesting, and the launching of revolutions.

Let me say clearly: Mine is absolutely no argument against causal analysis or strong programs—quite to the contrary.  Studies of religion’s independent effects have taught us a great deal about religion’s roles in the social world and in individual lives. These expanding lines of research no doubt have a lot more to tell us about religion’s effects, too.  The point is, rather, that at this point in the sociology of religion’s development, assigning religion the status of independent variable also invites more conversation.

The problem, partly, is that we have continued to trade on a narrow understanding of religion. As the authors of “Toward a new sociology of religion” say, and as I have said elsewhere, religion is often equated with “belief systems” or creeds, all the while our studies—particularly of non-Christian religion—show that beliefs and faith in the certainty of beliefs are not always as central to religious practice as the terms of our research often assume. A study that makes religion the causal actor can be interesting and intriguing, but I want to ask this actor—the strong, silent type—to say more: does that (causal) strength come from the “personal religious beliefs” that we often use as the stand-in for “religion”? Does it grow out of the status- or subculture-building power of religious identity? Or does that strength come from the self-building, life-organizing power of religious ritual? Might it depend on the organizational forms that our strong, silent type leans on? Maybe strength by itself isn’t quite as telling as we assume.

The report points to cultural sociology as a sub-field with a quite well-established strong program; some would say it has several. Is that strong program the kind that the sociology of religion has been developing? So far, the comparison would be rather weak. One of the major turning-points in understanding the “strength” of culture, Ann Swidler’s well-known article on culture as a tool-kit, was both a statement about culture’s independent and mediating causal effects and, simultaneously, a detailed exploration of how culture works. While not all agree on whether or not the took-kit model counts as evidence of a strong program, it was written and read as a statement about the fact that culture matters, and also about how culture matters in different ways and in different contexts.

In the quarter-century since then, the “how” question has remained central. Cultural sociology’s highly variegated “strong program” would be hard to characterize as the strong, silent type; so I offer another (roughly sketched!) movie metaphor: cultural sociology’s strong program(s) sounds a bit like Sybil, the famous character of psychiatric as well as celluloid record, who carried twenty-six personalities. Culture is many things. The subfield has put a great deal of good energy into proliferating culture concepts: discourses, narratives, binary codes, symbolic boundaries, group styles, vocabularies, and more. “Culture” talks about its strength(s) in a great variety of personae, since cultural sociologists find that no single concept can adequately cover the very different kinds of independent effects that culture has on social life, and on culture itself. “Culture” is many things in the same way that “social structure” is many things. Students of networks, class orders, role sets, status hierarchies, patriarchy, or institutionalized racism use their specific terms of inquiry and hence would not usually characterize their respective objects of study simply as “social structure.” Similarly, cultural sociologists learn specific ways to explore what later becomes “culture” again when communicated to a broader audience of non-specialists.

Sociological work on religion does not run in entirely parallel fashion. Distinctions inside the category of religion still work on a more substantive, less purely analytic basis: Islam, evangelical Protestantism, Pentecostalism, etc. Before some of its current strong programs took off, the sociology of culture worked in this more substantive vein, too:  we studied, and of course still study and need to keep studying youth culture, popular culture, mass culture, African-American culture, American culture. When sociologists of religion depart from the language of variables and say more about what aspect of religion interests us, we tend to borrow our specifying terms from other sub-disciplines, and thus to study religious organizations or religious practices or religious identity.

“Religion” and “culture” are not parallel entities. A strong program that would tell us more about how religion works may need different models of how to expand a sub-field, which neither Sybil nor the strong, silent type can provide us. Religion research may always need to view religion embedded in, manifested by, or instantiated in the primary tropes of other subfields. Choosing a book title, I thought a long time about what metaphor could communicate what religion does and what people do with religion in public, and settled on the statement that religion “has a civic life,” among other lives—though maybe not twenty-six. We need metaphors that the language of independent and dependent variables can’t really give us, in order to represent how religious institutions, groups, and individuals live religion and are animated by religion. If the growth of a strong program in religion alerts the skeptic to religion’s power in the social world, that’s a useful start. Then we can take the next step towards a conversation about how religion works and what religion is.